The wall separating Israel from the West Bank, immediately opposite the main gate of Al-Quds University in Abu Dis.

At the entrance to Abu Dis, the village on the edge of Jerusalem where Al-Quds University is located, there is a congested traffic circle.  Big yellow vans – shared taxis – double park to discharge passengers.  Wares from hardware and kitchen stores spill into the street.  Cars dart in and out of driveways to the ubiquitous repair shops.   If traffic is clogged in one direction or the other, drivers pull out and accelerate up the wrong side of the street, sometimes in the process creating secondary traffic jams going both ways.  Drivers like me going 270 degrees around the circle nagivate between all of these distractions, as well as pedestrians threading their way from one side to the other.

It would be an otherwise unremarkable traffic circle in the West Bank, except for this: the road through this congested intersection lies on the only route between the northern and southern halves of the West Bank that Palestinians are allowed to traverse.  If you are traveling from Bethlehem to the seat of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, or if you live in Hebron and wish to visit cousins in Nablus, the road through Abu Dis is the only way to get there.  At rush hour, you can easily wait 20 or 30 minutes at the traffic circle, while young men from the neighborhood jump into the fray to volunteer as informal traffic cops, waving cars around to allow the gridlock to ease.

Once upon a time, there was another way.  The direct route from south to north goes right through Jerusalem, offering many options when traffic gets clogged.  But most Palestinians who live in the West Bank do not have permits to enter Jerusalem or Israel, so they have to take the scenic back road around Jerusalem through Wadi Nar, past the Container checkpoint, through the middle of Abu Dis, and then past the front gate of the enormous settlement of Maale Adumim.   During rush hour, the journey from Bethlehem to Ramallah – only 10 miles or so if one could drive directly – can easily take an hour-and-a-half or more.

The roadway is a reminder of the constrained circumstances under which so many Palestinians in the West Bank live.  Everywhere the Israeli occupation imposes limits: on where Palestinians can go, what they can buy, to whom they can sell.  Even for those with decent jobs and a reasonable standard of income, these limitations are simply baked into everyday existence.  If West Bank residents want a day in the sun, they cannot by and large drive an hour to enjoy the shores of the Mediterranean; they must make do with the below-sea-level desert heat of Jericho.  If they want to start any kind of business that involves good, services, or capital, everything has to go through the byzantine complexities of cross-border exchange through Israeli checkpoints.  If they approach the main gate of the Al-Quds University campus, they come face-to-face with a high concrete barrier that keeps them safely separate from neighborhoods of Jerusalem, including the Old City and its holy sites, that once were minutes away.

Here I am leaving aside the harsher aspects of the occupation: encounters with Israeli soldiers and police; pre-dawn raids; conflicts on agricultural land with residents of settlements; “administrative detention” policies that allow Palestinians to be held in prison for months without charges.   These matters obviously have an impact too.  But the day-to-day constraints in the West Bank affect everyone, even those with positions of privilege.  A life of limitations is bound to have its costs.

No wonder Palestinians have a reputation for being the most avid users of social media in the world; if your life is hemmed in by political circumstances, virtual networks are one way to break somewhat loose.

In another month, Israel will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war, and particular the re-unification of the city of Jerusalem.  The Palestinians will mark the same date as the 50th anniversary of the occupation.

Most of my students, Palestinian professionals in their twenties and thirties, grew up under occupation, or have at least lived their adult lives under its constraints.  They maintain a spirit of hope about making changes within Palestinian society, but the years of limitations have taken their toll on their optimism about the larger prospects for Palestinian dignity and freedom.

The daily grind reinforces their adherence to a conventional Palestinian narrative.  Since 1967, as they understand it, Israel has tightened a noose around the Palestinians, moving more and more Jewish Israelis into settlements up and down the West Bank.  The Israeli goal seems clear to them:  annexation of the West Bank, and somehow the removal of the Palestinians or their diminishment to a state of insignificance.  Most of them believe that Zionism’s logic, if taken to its end point, will ultimately push Palestinians into smaller and smaller spaces.  The small box that they are living in – marked off in many places by a high concrete wall – will keep getting smaller.

They understand, of course, that Israelis live in fear as well, that the steady presence of the soldiers and the walls and the roadblocks has its roots in profound insecurity.  They understand, too, that the people of the West Bank have it better than the Palestinians in Gaza, where two million live in a virtual prison governed by a political and military organization that embraces violence.

But though their box may be more permeable than that of Gaza, it is still a box.  And it’s not hard to see how a world of narrow options is a breeding ground for resentment, especially when they need look no further than a few miles away to a place where the opportunities appear to be endless.

Palestinians look across the Green Line to Israel’s vibrant start-up culture and its spirit of unbounded possibility with envy.  Yes, start-ups are possible on the West Bank as well, but the hurdles to success are much, much higher, given the lack of capital, the lack of reliable infrastructure, and the artificial constraints on markets, among other factors.  Even the most motivated individuals can be worn down in a place where you can count the available routes on the fingers of your hands.

They are open to solutions.  President Mahmoud Abbas’s visit to President Donald Trump lifted some spirits here this week.   Seeing the Palestinian flag over the shoulder of the U.S. president offered some symbolic solace.  And despite Trump’s ties to some staunch supporters of the Israeli settler community (including the new ambassador to Israel), many still hold out hope that the president’s idiosyncrasies may be just the thing that the stultified peace process needs.

Still, it seems clear that nothing will make any substantial difference until Palestinians are able to make with some consistency the kinds of choices that free people can take for granted:  which road to travel, which career to pursue, which passions to follow.  The road through Abu Dis is a worn thread through the middle of the West Bank.  It is nowhere near strong enough to bear the aspirations of a proud people.